Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Raging Against The Machine

People often claim that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. However, they rarely discuss how those two issues affect the survivors whose lives revolved around the decedent. Two recent articles approached the process of death and dying from wildly opposite angles.
I always find it interesting how many references to nature appear in the way people talk about death. Some describe a person's final moments as "walking into the light" or "ascending to the heavens." Others describe the finality of death with references to "a flame being extinguished" or "a spirit that vanished into the night." Whether a person confesses to feeling "drained of all energy," "being swept up in a wave of emotion," or reminisces about the deceased's mercurial personality as something akin to "lightning in a bottle," a person's death is guaranteed to leave a vacuum in the lives of those left behind.

Some fight to keep the dead person's memory alive; others are suddenly charged with taking care of a surviving relative. Unfortunately, such responsibilities can be as frustrating as attempting to herd a group of cats; as exhausting as swimming against an undertow. As a result, one of the strangest priorities in the wake of a loved one's death is to avoid a double drowning.

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Based on a novel by Marie-Aude Murail, My Brother Simple starts off with a group of men standing on a raft as Ben (Frederick Lau) and John (David Berton) doff their shirts and have their chests greased up for an icy swim in the harbor. Their challenge is to retrieve a buoy that has been tossed into the water. The winner is Ben, who promptly uses his reward to purchase medicine for his pale, almost ashen mother (Anneke Kim Sarnau).

Although grateful for her son's devotion, Julia soon dies, leaving Ben distraught and seemingly saddled with the responsibility of caring for his younger brother, Barnabas (David Kross). The reason Barnabas is called Simple is because he is a hulking, strong 22-year-old autistic man with the mind of a three-year-old child, whose stuffed toy (a/k/a Mr. Rabbity Rabbit) serves as his security blanket.

Frederick Lau (Ben) and David Kross (Simple)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

The two brothers have always been extremely close, especially since they have not seen their absentee father, David (Devid Striesow), for 15 years. Ben still reads Simple's favorite children's book to his brother at bedtime and carries Simple on his back when ordinary activities (like boarding a bus) trigger a hysterical, fear-based tantrum.

Frederick Lau (Ben) and David Kross (Simple)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

Because David is listed as Simple's legal guardian, when informed of Julia's death, he doesn't hesitate to sign a document authorizing the police to place Simple in a group home with other developmentally disabled patients -- a move which would break the two brothers apart, but at least give Ben a chance to have a life of his own. When the police attempt to separate the two men, Simple starts to panic. Ben runs after the police van, rescues his brother, and the two men embark on a severely misguided adventure, hoping to fulfill a life-long dream of sailing around the world. Ben's secret goal is to find their estranged father in Hamburg so that they can live with David.

Frederick Lau (Ben) and David Kross (Simple)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

While their adventures may invoke memories of intensely dramatic road trip films like Rain Man or Thelma and Louise, My Brother Simple is never far from one of Simple's emotional meltdowns. Along the way, the brothers encounter:
  • Franciczek (Maxim Kovalevski), a sympathetic truck driver who overhears Simple arguing with Mr. Rabbity Rabbit in a Porta-Potty at a truck stop. He leaves the door to his truck's cab open for the two brothers and, once on the road, makes it clear to Ben that his son is also mentally challenged.
  • Enzo (Axel Stein) and Aria (Emilia Schüle), two emergency medical personnel who, having been on duty at a local event, give the two hitchhikers a ride to Hamburg.
  • A young girl with Down syndrome who lives in a group home and is celebrating her birthday with friends in a local park. When she offers Simple a piece of birthday cake, he happily joins her and falls in love.
  • Chantal (Annette Frier), a friendly prostitute who meets Simple at a bus stop where he is waiting for Ben. When an agitated Ben returns and gives Chantal some money to look after his brother for a while, Chantal takes Simple back to the brothel where she works. Not only does Simple get along fine with the other women, he has a great time as they dress him up to look like a street hooker.
David Kross (Simple) and Frederick Lau (Ben)
in a scene from My Brother Simple

Soon after their arrival in Hamburg, Aria allows the two brothers to stay at her apartment for a night. When Ben leaves his brother alone, Simple gets into all kinds of trouble which eventually leads Ben, Aria, and Enzo on a wild chase around the city. What Simple doesn't know is that Ben has finally made contact with David, who has been selling luxury automobiles in an upscale showroom and has apparently remarried and fathered two daughters.

Axel Stein (Enzo) and Emilia Schüle (Aria) perform surgery
on Mr. Rabbity Rabbit in a scene from My Brother Simple

With a screenplay by Dirk Ahner and Markus Goller, My Brother Simple (which will be screened at the upcoming Berlin and Beyond Film Festival) has been directed by Goller with impressive levels of irony, compassion, and dramatic tension. While Axel Stein, Emilia Schüle, Annette Frier, Maxim Kovalevski, Anneke Kim Sarnau, and Devid Striesow give strong performances in supporting roles, the brunt of the film rests on the shoulders of the two actors portraying the Kleeman brothers. Frederick Lau's Ben is a caring and determined older brother, desperately trying to hold things together as his life is held hostage by one crisis situation after another. The film is dominated by the brave and daring David Kross, whose whirlwind portrayal of Simple is a tour de force that should not be missed. Here's the trailer:

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San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center recently presented the world premiere of a new dramedy by Tim Pinckney. Tightly directed by Dennis Lichteig (with costumes by Jorge R. Hernandez, sound by Theodore J.H. Hulsker, and lighting by Maxx Kurzunski), the protagonist of Still At Risk is a gay man whose emotional wounds have never healed, leaving him perpetually angry at the world. Not only do people keep telling Kevin (Scott Cox) that he's become so irascible that he makes Larry Kramer seem sweet and docile, Kevin's tendency to vent his anger at old friends who might be able to help him leaves him in the unenviable position of being his own worst enemy.

Kevin's anger stems from events that happened in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when friends were dying all around him and his lover, Eric, dumped him for Christopher (Matt Weimer), a naive young Southern man who had just arrived in town and was much more enthusiastic and receptive to bottoming. While Eric was a passionate protester and strategist who did wonders to keep the Manhattan AIDS Project focused on its mission, he was (like Kramer) an obnoxious, confrontational soul whose talent with words burned a lot of bridges behind him. Eventually, the Board of Directors of the Manhattan AIDS Project cut its ties with Eric, who subsequently died of AIDS.

The cast of Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema) 

As the play begins, the audience sees Marcus (William Giammona) having a phone conversation with a recent trick while someone keeps buzzing his doorbell. When he finally responds, he learns that Kevin is downstairs, in crisis mode, and needs to see Marcus immediately. While on his way to an audition, Kevin tripped, fell into a mud puddle, and desperately needs to borrow some clothing. After he showers and tries on some of the clothes belonging to Marcus's boyfriend, Luke, Kevin's rage takes over and he explains how angry he is at some news he has just heard via the gay grapevine.

J. Conrad Frank (Byron) and Scott Cox (Kevin) in
a scene from Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)

It turns out that the Manhattan AIDS Project is planning a gala fundraising event. Although the evening's theme honors MAP's founders, Eric's name is nowhere to be found in their plans or promotional literature. Incensed at the insult to Eric's memory, Kevin sets up a meeting with Byron (J. Conrad Frank), the organization's new Director of Development. A young, well-connected, and highly successful fundraiser who has left Hollywood for New York so he can "give back" by taking a high-paying job at a nonprofit, one of Byron's talents is massaging wounded egos. As Kevin waits for his face time with Byron, he encounters his old friend, Susan (Desiree Rogers), a lesbian who has since married a man, had a child, and is working as a freelance writer.

William Giammona (Marcus) and Desiree Rogers (Susan)
in a scene from Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Susan and Kevin both want something from Byron: She has an assignment to interview him for a puff piece in Pride magazine; he wants to convince Byron to include Eric's name as one of the evening's honorees. The difference is that, while Susan has learned how to be professional, tactful, and "attract more flies with honey," Kevin is still stuck in an emotional rut where the flies he attracts are more intrigued with his shit. As the playwright explains:
"I was working as an actor (and a waiter) when I found out that my best friend, David, had become HIV positive. This was when there was no hope and very few treatment options. I stopped auditioning because I didn’t want to go out of town and leave my friend -- we did not have a lot of time left. After David died, I lost eight more friends within two weeks. It was everywhere. Like so many others, I was furious, scared, and heartbroken. I stopped acting and went to work with new clients at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The agency, at that time, was primarily made up of people like me who had quit their regular jobs and joined the fight. We became activists and caretakers. We became soldiers in this war."
J. Conrad Frank (Byron) and Matt Weimer (Christopher)
in a scene from Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)
"This hateful plague swept in and changed our lives in unimaginable ways. It was horrifying to see your circle of friends, lovers, and colleagues get smaller on a sometimes daily basis. But as we fought, we banded together, using our voices and our anger to bring about change. We cried and laughed together and created strong, compassionate families. Those relationships kept us going. They are the ones that continue to keep me going. The families we created are the true heart of this play. Still At Risk is the story of one person who went to war, survived, but lost his way. It is an incredibly personal story although Kevin’s journey is very different from mine. There are thousands upon thousands of survival stories from this plague. This is just one."
The cast of Still At Risk (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Ed Decker has assembled a uniformly strong ensemble, even if Scott Cox gets to handle most of the histrionics. Desiree Rogers is a tart-tongued Susan, who displays great skill at teasing Kevin with names weighty with gay trivia. J. Conrad Frank shines as the young Byron, who knows how to stay focused on raising money despite all sorts of petty annoyances. William Giammona's Marcus and Matt Weimer's Christopher bring a sense of maturity to the table as gay men who have survived the worst of the AIDS epidemic and managed to move on with their lives. I was especially impressed with Devin Kasper's simple, yet highly effective scenic elements. Dennis Lichteig's direction was spot on.

Part of what makes Pinckney's play so interesting is that a great deal of the humor is delivered by an acerbic lesbian (Susan) while Kevin continues to rage around the stage like the theatre's resident cyclone (it's not easy to write for a character whose relentless anger threatens to exhaust the audience). Performances of Still At Risk continue through February 25 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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